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Ronnie Polaneczky: Eagles take left-out practice squad under their wing

THIS HAS to be the most fun follow-up I've ever written to a column that wasn't fun to write when I wrote it.

THIS HAS to be the most fun follow-up I've ever written to a column that wasn't fun to write when I wrote it.

Bonus? I get to use a word to describe Eagles coach Andy Reid that not many fans are using these days:


Gosh, that felt good to say.

Back on Dec. 13, I told the tale of three young boys - Jarrett Walker, 13; Brandon DeShields, 12; and Damion Patterson, 13 - who played their hearts out this year for the Enon Eagles, a community football team named after our very own Birds.

Organized by Enon Tabernacle Church in Cedarbrook, the Enon Eagles performed so well that they earned a coveted berth in the Pop Warner 2011 Super Bowl Championships at Disney World.

However, through innocent miscommunication or thoughtless omission (I couldn't figure out which, despite calls to Enon), Jarrett, Brandon and Damion were excluded from the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Florida.

See, the boys' skills aren't quite up to par, so they are "practice players" for Enon. They toil through every training session and attend every game, but they don't play in the games. Still, the boys are considered a vital part of the team.

But not vital enough, apparently, to be included in the Orlando sojourn - even though coaches of the Enon league's other teams got to go, as did the cheerleaders.

When my sympathetic column about the kids hit print, an equally sympathetic reader posed a tantalizing question.

"The Philadelphia Eagles have practice players," he said. "Why don't you see if the Enon kids can meet them?"

A single phone call to Eagles communications czar Rob Zeiger sent the ball flying, with an enthusiastic assist from community-relations manager Julie Hirshey.

And that's how, yesterday, Jarrett, Brandon and Damion found themselves reveling in a pep talk from Eagles defensive end Phillip Hunt and wide receiver Chad Hall - both former practice-squad players who made it onto the official roster - and from Ronald Johnson, a wide receiver on the current practice squad.

With family members, the wide-eyed kids met with the men at the Eagles' NovaCare Complex, where they also received official Eagles footballs, gloves, hats and key chains. Hunt even handed over - for keeps - the dirty, sweaty gloves he'd just worn in the team's afternoon practice.

"Oh, wow!" said Jarrett.

"Jarrett will never wash that glove," laughed his mom, Jessica Shaw, as Jarrett shyly turned it over and over in his small hand.

Better than the goodies was the advice the players shared, as they autographed the footballs and gloves.

"I started out on the practice squad, just like you," said Hunt. "It was hard work, but I pushed through all the highs and lows. Sometimes you think, 'I'm never gonna start!' But you gotta keep your confidence up, keep working and good things will happen. I'm proof of that."

Hall told the boys how, over the past two years, he's toggled between the practice squad and the active roster.

"But that's just life," he shrugged. "You go through adversity. But you just keep at it. That's something no one can ever take away from you - your work ethic. If you want it bad enough, you'll get it. That's the story."

Midway through the meet-and-greet, Julie Hirshey took the boys and their families on a walk-through of the NovaCare offices and then paused to knock on a closed door.

"Come on in," called a familiar voice from inside. And there he was, coach Andy Reid, dressed in sweats, who'd been reviewing tape of the Washington Redskins, whom the Birds play this Sunday.

"No way!" said Brandon. "Andy Reid!"

"Coach Reid!" said Damion. "I'm gonna play for you one day!"

The parents practically swooned as Reid signed balls and extolled the virtues of effort and stressed that practice is the key to everything worthwhile.

The interaction took less than five minutes. But as the boys trundled out of the NovaCare Complex, you could feel the impact of Reid's kindness and of the sweetness of players who took the time to let the Enon kids know that there is honor, not shame, in being a practice player.

"This day," said Jarrett, "is better than Florida."